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The Persian Epic of Kings: millennium of the poet Ferdowsi.

In 1010 (now one thousand years ago), the Persian poet Ferdowsi completed his magnum opus Shahnama ("The Book of Kings"). This literary masterpiece consisting of 50,000 rhymed couplets is among world's longest poetry books. It presents, much like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, a great epic from the classical world although the book is little known to the Western public. It also helped preserve the Persian civilization and language after the Arab conquest of Persia (Iran) in the seventh century. Cultural organizations like UNESCO are holding events in 2010-2011 to mark the Millennium of Ferdowsi.

How sweetly has said the good-natured Ferdowsi (May blessings be upon his holy mausoleum): Do not harass the ant carrying a seed For it has life and sweet life is dear.

--The Persian poet Saadi, Bustan (The Orchard), 1257

Ferdowsi (also written as "Firdausi") is among the five top (if not the topmost) Persian poets of all time. In Iran's capital Tehran, there is a Ferdowsi Square where a white statute of the poet holding his book offers a peaceful sight to the busy traffic and passers-by. The statute was installed in 1976 in place of another statute of Ferdowsi which had been donated by the Zoroastrian (Parsees) community of India to the city of Tehran four decades earlier (this statute was transferred to the campus of T ehran University and now lies in front of the Faculty of Letters' building).

The story of this monument is one among many monuments and names of streets, magazines, libraries, and colleges in honor of Ferdowsi not only in Iran but in other countries as well. The main university in the city of Mash'had in northeast Iran, the national library of Tajikistan and a street in the capital Dushenbe, the college library of Wadham College (Oxford, England), a square (Pizzale Firdusi) in the city of Rome, and more recently a library in the Albanian city of Berat have been named after Ferdowsi. All these show the cultural significance of this poet not only for the Persian-speaking peoples in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (totaling about 120 millions) but also in the history of world literature. This article offers an overview of the latest information on the life and work of Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi's Time

To appreciate Ferdowsi's work it is imperative to situate him in the larger context of his history and geography. Prior to the Arab invasion, Persia (or Iran as the Persians called their country) together with Rome and China were then the world's largest

empires. In the 7th century, during the time of the second caliph Omar, the Arabs--freshly equipped with the uniting religion of Islam--invaded their neighboring countries.

Centuries of war between the Persian and Roman empires had exhausted both governments. This combined with internal problems in Persia and the zeal of the new Arabian society led to fall of the Sassanian (Sassanid) dynasty which had ruled Persia for over four centuries. Although the Iranians, over a period of two centuries or so, converted to Islam, they still desired to preserve their culture and historical standing. This ambition manifested itself in areas of both politics and literature.

There were military uprisings against the Arab rulers from time to time at various parts of Iran; some were put down violently but some were successful enough to engage in new political relationships with the Arab caliphs. Khorassan, a region in northeast Iran, especially played an important role in these Persian protests and renaissance. Indeed, the modern Persian language is the outgrowth of a dialect spoken in Khorassan (it is also called the Dari, "court," Persian which is the national language in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan).

The Arab Ummaiah dynasty (661-750 A.D.) came to power in Damascus after the death of Ali (the fourth Caliph after Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam of Shiite Muslims). The dynasty was highly pro-Arab and had little respect for other peoples and cultures. These rulers were replaced in 750 by the Abbasi (Abbasid) dynasty with the help of Persian rebels from Khorassan.

The Abbasi caliphs established a new capital in Baghdad, close to Ctesiphon which was the capital of the Sassanian kings (its ruins still stand today some 35 km south of Baghdad). These caliphs also chose their court administers and ministers from elite families in Iran, thus modeling their governing on that of the Sassanian. Caliph Al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-833), who had a Persian mother, particularly showed great interest in other cultures, and founded a great library and center of learning and translation, the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), in Baghdad. (The House of Wisdom and the Abbasi court were destroyed by the Mongols as they invaded first Persia and eventually Bagdad in 1258.)

Iranian scholars and artists thus played a major role in the spread of science, philosophy, literature, architecture, and arts throughout the Islamic world; the ninth through twelfth centuries are indeed called the Golden Age of the Islamic civilization.

During the rule of the Abbasi caliphs, several powerful Iranian dynasties also emerged, such as the Taherian, Saffarian, and Samanian, which converted their courts and administration to the modern Persian language, and supported the works of Iranian poet sand writers. The Samanian (Samanid) kings (819-999), who ruled the eastern parts of Iran, are particularly renowned as revivers of Persian culture and literature, and Ferdowsi was born and grew up during the reign of that dynasty.

The Poet's Life

Constructing the biography of classical Persian poets from piecemeal information scattered in various, and at times conflicting, sources has always posed a formidable challenge to scholars; Ferdowsi's biography is no exception. Decades of modern scholarship, however, has revealed an outline of his life.

Ferdowsi's given name was Abulqasim Hassan or (according to some other sources) Abulqasim Mansur. His pen name Ferdowsi means "a man of Ferdows or Paradise" (the English word "paradise" was derived from the Old Persian word "pairidaeza," meaning "walled garden"). It is not clear whether Ferdowsi chose this pen-name because he owned a large garden called Ferdows (as Ibn Isfandyar, author of the "History of Tabarestan," 1216, informs us) or (less likely) the title was given by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi during the poet's visit to the king's court (as we read in a preface to the Florence Library's 1217 manuscript of the Shahnama).

Ferdowsi was most probably born in the year 329 A.H. (After Hijra, the Islamic calendar) which corresponds to 940 A.D. We know this from a poem in which Ferdowsi says that he is an old man of 58 and that Sultan Mahmud has just come to power (which was the year or 997 A.D. or 387 A.H.).

He was born in the village of Pazh (or Faz), near the town of Tabaran in the Tus area of Khorassan. (Faz lies some 15 kilometers north of Mash'had, a modern city which has overshadowed the ancient Tus.) Ferdowsi came from a wealthy landlord ("Dehqan") family; he was thus economically independent and did not need to be a court poet. The Dehqan (literally "peasant" but historically "landlord") class not only owned agricultural lands but were also guardians of the Iranian culture and customs. Ferdowsi apparently had a good education; aside from the modern Persian literature of his generation, he studied the Pahlavi (Middle Persian of the Sassanian era) and Arabic languages.

We have no information about Ferdowsi's parents and family. He married probably at age 27 because in one of his poems Ferdowsi, then aged 65, refers with sadness to the death of his 37 years old son. Ferdowsi apparently spent most (if not all) of his life in Tus, managing his lands and working on the Shahnama.

The date of Ferdowsi's death has also been debated by scholars. Toward the end of his book, he refers to his age as 76 or even close to 80. Classical literature mentions two dates: 1020 A.D. (411 A.H.) and 1025 A.D. (416 A.H.). The former comes from an older source; therefore, more likely Ferdowsi died in 1020, aged 81.

It has been reported that during Ferdowsi's funeral in Tus, a fanatic clergyman did not permit his body to be buried in the Muslim cemetery on the account that the poet was a pro-Iranian Shi'ite (not a Sunni) Muslim. Incidentally, Ferdowsi owned a large garden in Tus, where his body was buried. The governor of Tus (Arsalan Jadheq) then built a dome upon this tomb, and Ferdowsi's mausoleum soon became a national shrine.

Through the centuries, his mausoleum has been reconstructed and has attracted visitors. The Scottish travel writer James Baillie Fraser visited it in 1822. His modern mausoleum built in 1934 and 1969 is a marble pyramid designed after the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae (in southern Iran). Ferdowsi' tomb in Tus remains one of the most popular sightseeing places in Iran for tourists and scholars.

The Making of the Persian Epic

Ferdowsi was not the first person to compose the Shahnama; he acknowledges this fact: "All my tales have been told by others before." Prior to Ferdowsi, there were at least four manuscripts of the Shahnama we know of, two in prose and two in verse, and all of them written in Khorassan during the Samanian dynasty in the 10th century. The first Persian poet to compose a Shahnama was Mas'udi Marvazi (from the city of Merv, now in Afghanistan). Abul Mo'ayyed Balkhi (from the city of Balkh) produced a larger work in prose.

Ferdowsi apparently did not use any of these two works. However, when he was a teenager, the governor of Khorassan Abu Mansur Mohammad son of Abdul Razzaq commissioned a group of learned Zoroastrian priests from the cities of Nishabur, Tus, Herat, and Sistan to compile a complete Shahnama in prose. This work, referred to as the "Shahnama of Abu Mansur," was completed in the year 958. The young Ferdowsi took pains to obtain a copy of this book, which was eventually given to him by Amirak Mansur (son of Abu Mansur Mohammad), Ferdowsi's friend and governor of Tus who encouraged the poet to put it in verse.

The fourth Shahnama, which preceded Ferdowsi, was a verse version by Abu Mansur Daqiqi, a Zoroastrian Persian poet at the Samanian court, who composed 1000 lines (as Ferdowsi mentions) but was murdered (probably because of his religion and lifestyle) by his fanatic servant in about 978 A.D. Daqiqi's incomplete work entitled Goshtasp Nama ("The Book of Goshtasp," after a legendary Persian king) was another motivation for Ferdowsi to compose his Shahnama.

For his work, Ferdowsi also studied an important book from the Sassanian era called Khoday Nama (or Khataynamak in Middle Persian, "The Book of Lords") originally written in the Middle Persian (Pahlavi) but also translated into Arabic and modern Persian.

Numerous manuscripts of this popular book were available for Ferdowsi's generation. The poet also seems to have made use of legends and beliefs he had heard from his hometown folks.

What sets Ferdowsi's work from all the Shahnama books before him is that his book has survived through the centuries while we only have a name and a few lines from the works of his predecessors. Probably history was on Ferdowsi's side; but it was also be cause of the absorbing quality of Ferdowsi's poetry, the comprehensiveness of his account, and his long-life commitment to his work not as a court poet but as the consciousness of a civilization.

The word "Shah Nama" (also written "Shah Nameh") has two meanings: First, the Book of Kings or the Royal Book; second, the Book of Greatness or the Masterly Book. And these two meanings are somewhat related in that the book offers exalted qualities for h uman life, social order, and governing which the great kings and noblemen needed to know. This is evident from the preface to the Shahnama of Abu Mansur: "They called this work the Shahnama so that men of knowledge may look into it and learn about the cu lture of kings, noblemen, and sages."

Scholars believe that Ferdowsi started working seriously on the Shahnama between 978-80, although he had most likely composed some of the love and heroic stories in his book much earlier having his youthful passion. The poet thus began his work in the pa triotic atmosphere of the Samanian dynasty. He finished the first edition of the Shahnama in 994 (384 A.H.) during the final turbulent years of the Samanian rule, which, shortly later, gave way to the Ghaznavi dynasty. The new king Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi also welcomed Persian scholars and artists to this court. At age 58, Ferdowsi shows his delight for coming to power of this powerful king (997).

At age 60 and after that, we read lines from Ferdowsi indicating that his health and wealth were gone. At age 65, we learn of his decision to dedicate his masterpiece to Sultan Mahmud as the aging poet was in need of money and royal recognition for his w ork. Ferdowsi worked several more years on the book before finalizing it (according to his own saying) in the year 1010 (400 A.H.), aged 71. In anticipation of a huge bonus from Sultan Mahmud, Ferdowsi sent or took with him his book written in seven volumes to the royal court in Ghazna. He acknowledges a calligrapher by the name of Ali Deylam and a poetry reciter Abu Dolaf to have helped him in his final task.

Here we reach the climax of Ferdowsi's life story, but alas the extant sources give various accounts. By all accounts, however, it is clear that Sultan Mahmud did not appreciate Ferdowsi's book probably because, by then, the king had been transformed into a fanatic warrior at the service of the Abbasi caliphs in Baghdad, and the envious comments of his newly-appointed chief minister (Ahmad bin Hassan Meymandi) on Ferdowsi's pro-Shi'ite or pro-Persian sentiments had their intended impact on the king.

According to one famous account, Ferdowsi hoped to receive 60 thousand gold coins ("dinar") corresponding to 60 thousand lines of his poetry book, but in the end the king decided to give him 50 or 20 thousand silver coins ("dirham"). Offended by this mis treatment, Ferdowsi is reported to have gone to a public bathhouse, then drank beer, and divided the king's money between the bath attendant and the beer server.

Fleeing Ghazna, the story goes on, Ferdowsi took his complaints to the court of an Iranian governor (by the name of Espahbod Shahriyar) in the Tabarestan province (the Caspian region). There, he composed a 100-lined satire criticizing Sultan Mahmud's insensitivity and lack of royal standing. The governor purchased this satire for 100,000 silver coins in order to destroy them, and recommended Ferdowsi not to judge the king so harshly. Several lines of this satire are extant and usually come as an appendi x at the end of the Shahnama manuscripts and prints.

It is also reported that in the end, Sultan Mahmud, upon hearing some beautiful poem from Ferdowsi, regretted his unjust behavior toward the poet, and decided to honor him. He sent a caravan of camels carrying gold to Ferdowsi's hometown in Tus. But as the king's caravan was entering through one of the gates of the town, Ferdowsi's funeral party were carrying his body outside the town through another gate. The legend continues that the king's delegates offered the gold gifts to Ferdowsi's only surviving daughter but she refused it out of pride and respect for her deceased father. The king then ordered to spend the money to build a caravansary for the convenience of travelers to and from Tus.

There is evidence that Ferdowsi continued to revise the Shahnama during the last decade of his life. He also records 8 March (25 Ispand, according to the Persian solar calendar) as the date when he completed the Shahnama but after this line the various manuscripts give either the year 994 (384 A.H., the first edition) or 1010 (400 A.H., the final edition).

The poetic format used in the Shahnama is one called "masnavi" (couplet), each line consisting of two rhymed parts. Out of the 60,000 lines of the Shahnama, the present manuscripts and printed copies contain about 50,000 lines; nearly one-fifth of the book has probably been lost through the ages of copy writing. Overall, Ferdowsi spent 35 years on composing his book; this is what he mentions in the final pages, although in some other lines he also refers to 25 or 30 years of his labor, including this famous line:

Much hard labor have I done for thirty years In the end I have revived Persia through this Persian verse. I shall not pass away since I will remain alive Through the seeds of this language I have spread everywhere.

Ferdowsi's Mythos and Ethos

The opening poems of the Shahnama inform us about Ferdowsi's beliefs. He praises the One God as the creator of intelligence, life, and the universe. God's being, he says, is beyond any material quality or human thought. He takes a great delight in nature--the light and warmth of the Sun, the cycle of days and nights, the stars and planets, the trees and life on Earth, and the Four Elements (which appeared, according to him, in the sequence) of fire, air, water, and soil, etc.

His emphasis on "kherad" (wisdom) and "danesh" (knowledge) both on the matters of the natural world and on the ethics of human life and social conduct demonstrates how much Ferdowsi valued these qualities, probably because of his heritage as the Persian "Dehqan" (landlord). Indeed, his famous line "A learned human is a powerful one too; the old hearts grow young through knowledge" (which has decorated the Persian textbooks in Iran for decades) reminds us of the sixteenth century English philosopher Fran cis Bacons' motto, "knowledge is power."

Scholars have divided the stories of the Shahnama into three categories: The mythological, the heroic, and the historical ages. The mythological portion (merely about 4 percent of the book) is important in that Ferdowsi preserved the Zoroastrian account of creation which is now valuable for mythologists (many classical books from the Islamic world merely repeat the account of creation and prehistory given in the Old Testament and the Quran).

The story begins with Keyumars, the first man and a mountain dweller who becomes the first king and teaches people various arts of living including cookery. He is soon contrasted with an evil character, Ahirman, whose son kills Keyumars' son, and their conflicts sets the stage for a series of wars between their descendents (a typical Zoroastrian motif of conflict between goodness and evil). Among the good kings are Jamshid, who assigns the Spring Equinox to be the Iranian New Year (Nowruz, still celebra ted in the Persian-speaking world); Houshang who discovers fire by striking a flint stone with his sword; and Feridoun who kills the evil ruler Zah'hak, and finally divides the habitable world among his three sons: Rom (the West) is given to Salm, Turan (Turkistan) to Tur, and Iran to the youngest son Iraj. The older brothers, however, are envious and kill Iraj to takeover his kingdom. Iraj's grandson Manuchehr revenges this murder, and with his rule thus ends the mythological period of "the First (Pish dadian) Kings."

The heroic period of the Shahnama narrates fascinating stories of heroism, courageous campaigns (some triumphant and some failed), and of romance and marriage. Here the Kayanian dynasty of Persian kings is supported by a series of heroes from the province of Sistan (southeast Iran) with Rustam being the most celebrated figure (the Persian Hercules, one might say). Rustam's ride on his extraordinary horse to the mountains of the Caspian region to save the king Kaykavus from the devil's prison and the hero's "seven-staged" campaign on this journey is one of the engaging stories of the Shahnama. The death of Rustam, after a lengthy life but still in a battle, ends the heroic period. This portion of the Shahnama accounts for almost two-thirds of the book, and a rich tradition of story telling (in tea houses or on paintings) has developed around these heroic and love stories in Iran through centuries.

The historic period begins with a reference to the Achaemenid dynasty but mentions only two of its kings, Darab (Darius II) and Dara (Darius III). We know from history that the Achaemenid dynasty founded by Cyrus was overthrown by the young Macedonian-Greek leader Alexander (son of Philip) who invaded Persia in 334 B.C. To the astonishment of a Western reader, Alexander the Great is recast in the Shahnama as a half-Greek and half-Persian prince (his mother being the daughter of Philip and his father being Dara himself)! Ferdowsi clearly took this twisted story from a Persian or Arabic version of the Alexander Romance originally written by Pseudo-Callisthenes in which Alexander was orientalized as Eskandar. After a long narrative on Eskander's conquest and rule of Persia, Ferdowsi turns his readers' attention to the Sassanian kings, the last of which Yazdgird III was defeated by the Arabs in the seventh century--an event that Ferdowsi recounts mournfully.

Ferdowsi's little treatment of the Achaemenid (550-330 B.C.), Parthian or Arsacid (274 B.C. to 224 A.D.) dynasties of ancient Persia, has been explained by scholars on account that the Sassanian literature, on which the poet relied, did not provide information about the previous dynasties so as not to glorify them. Scholars have also debated the extent to which Ferdowsi was sincere to his sources. Comparative studies show that in his accounts Ferdowsi conveyed information as he had obtained from his sources; nevertheless, the poet's love of his homeland and humanistic ideals permeates his book.

Scholarly Studies of the Shahnama

What we know of Ferdowsi's life come from four categories of literature:

(1) The Shahnama itself, in which Ferdowsi sometimes refers to his age and life events;

(2) Prefaces written to the manuscripts of the Shahnama, most notably Bondari's introduction to his Arabic translation in the 13th century, the 1217 manuscript (in the Florence library), the 1276 manuscript (now in the British Museum), and the 1425 Bayso

nghori manuscript (kept in Tehran);

(3) Other Persian poets who have composed poems in praise of Ferdowsi's work such as Asadi Tusi (11th century), Nezami (12th century), Attar (13th century), and Jami (15th century); and

(4) Biographies recorded in classical Persian sources; chief among these are: "History of Sistan" (Tarikh Sistan) written by an unknown 11th century author; "Four Discourses" (Chahar Maqala) by Nezami Aruzi Samarqandi (12th century, one century after Fer dowsi's death); "The Heart of Hearts" (Lobab ul-Albab) by Mohammad Awfi (13th century); "Selected History" (Tarikh Gozideh) by Hamdullah Mostofi (14th century); and "Biographies of the Poets" (Tazkirat ul-Sho'ara) by Doulatshah Samarqandi (15th century).

The contemporary Iranian scholar Mohammad Amin Riyahi has compiled all the references to Ferdowsi in the above-mentioned Persian sources in a single volume, "Sources of the Ferdowsi Studies" (Sarcheshme-haye Ferdowsi Shenasi, Tehran, 1993) which is a valuable work for researchers.

Among the modern studies of Ferdowsi and the Shahnama mention should be made of Das Iranische Nationalepos ("The National epic of Iran") (Berlin, 1920) by the German Orientalist Theodor Noldeke; Glossar zu Firdousis Schahname ("Dictionary of Ferdowsi's Shahnama") (Berlin, 1935) by Fritz Wolff; Firdausi et l'epopee nationale ("Ferdowsi and the National Epic") (Paris, 1934) by the French scholar Henri Masse; Hamase sara'yee dar Iran ("Epic Poetry in Iran") by the Iranian scholar Zabihullah Safa (in Persian, Tehran, 1954); Ketab Shenasi Ferdowsi ("Bibliography of Ferdowsi") by Iraj Afshar (Tehran, 1976); Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography by Shapur Shabazi (Harvard University Press, 1991); Ferdowsi by Mohammad Amin Riyahi (in Persian, Tehran, 1996).

The "Millennium of Ferdowsi" celebrations in 1934 in Iran offered an important benchmark for the modern studies of Ferdowsi and the Shahnama. The event motivated a modern print of the Shahnama in Persian (10 volumes, Brokhim Press, Tehran, 1934-36); it encouraged the reconstruction of Ferdowsi's tomb in Tus; and it also marked the first international gathering of the Ferdowsi scholars. Since then, many international conferences in this field of research have been held both in Iran and other parts of the world including Columbia University (1997) and Harvard University (1999).

In 1971, Foundation of Shahnama (Bonyad Shahnama) started as a research institute by the Ministry of Culture and Arts in Tehran, headed by the Iranian scholar Mojtaba Minovi. It maintained a large library, published a journal (Simorgh), and supported res earch projects and books until 1979.

The Shahnama: Illustrated, Edited and Printed Versions

Manuscripts of the Shahnama have been handed down from generation to generation. Among the most celebrated and antique manuscripts three should be mentioned here:

(1) The "Great Mongol Shahnama" dating back to the period of the Ilkhanian dynasty in the 14th century (probably commissioned by chief minister Ghiyas al-Din in the 1330s in Tabriz). Today (as far as we know), the manuscript has 57 illustrations and pages scattered among museums and private collections as in the early 20th century Paris dealer Georges Demotte split the manuscript and sold its folios. (The Metropolitan Museum of New York houses some of these.)

(2) The "Baysonghor Shahnama" commissioned in 1429 by Prince Baysonghor (a grandson of Tamerlane or Sultan Timur) in the city of Herat (now in Afghanistan); it is a beautiful work of calligraphy by Jafar Tabrizi in 700 sheets, decorated with 24 miniature

paintings. This manuscript is kept at the Museum of Gulestan Palace, Tehran and is recorded in UNESCO's "Memory of the World Register" of cultural heritage items.

(3) The "Shahnama of Shah Tahmasib" commissioned by the Safavi king Shah Tahmasib (reigned 1524-76) and produced in Tabriz. It has 759 folios of calligraphed text and 258 paintings made by renowned artists of the time including Sultan Muhammad, Mir Musavvir, and Aqa Mirak. The book was given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan Salim II in 1568, and it remained until the early 20th century in the library of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Today the folios of the manuscript are owned by private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Smithsonian Museum's Arthur Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. In the USA, it is sometimes called the Houghton Shahnama, after the rare-book collector Arthur Houghton, Jr., who purchased the original manuscript in 1959, dismembered it in 1972 and sold its folios separately. However, the bulk of the manuscript with many of its illustrations was bartered for a modern work (a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Willem de Kooning) by Iran and is now kept at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.

Currently there are over 500 manuscripts of the Shahnama in various libraries and museums around the world; most of them are partial but some are complete; 270 of them are dated while 240 manuscripts give no dates for their calligraphy.

The first printed versions of the Shahnama appeared in the early 19th century in Calcutta (Kolkata), the capital of the British India and the city where Sir William Jones founded the Asiatic Society in 1784. Persian used to be the court language of India's Moghul dynasty during the 16-19th centuries; therefore, manuscripts of Persian works were widely available in the Indian subcontinent. In 1811, Matthew Lumsden printed the first volume of his intended eight-volume Shahnama in Calcutta, but the publication did not continue. Turner Macan achieved this goal with his four-volume Persian print in 1829 in Calcutta.

Faced with the multitude of the Shahnama manuscripts (which show some variations in the text as well as degrees of completeness), scholars soon recognized the need for a critically edited version of the Shahnama by comparing several authentic manuscripts. The German-French scholar Julius von Mohl (1800-1876) pioneered this effort. Commissioned by the French emperor Louis Philip I, he compared 35 manuscripts of the Shahnama and spent five decades to produce not only an edited Persian version in seven volumes, but also a French translation of the work with a scholarly introduction to it. This monumental work ("Livre des rois" in French) was published by the French government from 1838 until even after Mohl's death in 1878, and remains to this day one of the most artistic prints of the Shahnama. (A copy of it was presented by the French emperor to the 19th-century Qajar kings in Iran, which is now preserved at the Museum of Gulestan Palace, Tehran. It was reprinted in 1976 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Mohl's death).

Russian scholars took another significant step to produce an edited version of the Shahnama in Persian; it was published in nine volumes in Moscow from 1960-1976 under the direction of E. Bertles (and later Abdul Hossein Noushin).

The most recent and possibly the best version of the Shahnama in Persian is the work edited by the Iranian scholar Jalal Khalegi Motlaq based on a critical reading of 45 manuscripts. This work, in 12 volumes (eight volumes of text and four volumes of explanatory notes), began in 1987 and was completed in 2009. It has been published by Bibliotehca Persica in New York (later reprinted in Tehran).

Several abridged, single-volume versions of the Shahnama have been printed in Tehran, and these volumes are often used by the Persian speaking readers. One of the popular prints is "The Selected Shahnama" ("Montakhab Shahnama") edited by Mohammad Ali Forughi (a former prime minister of Iran) in 1942.


The first translation of the Shahnama was made into Arabic by Fat'h ibn Ali Bondari Esfahani during 1223-1227 in Damascus. The Turkish Ottoman kings were fond of the Shahnama; the first Turkish translation (in verse) was made Ali Efendi in 1510, and several other translations followed it.

The Shahnama, in whole or in part, has been translated into more than 30 languages including Arabic, Armenian, English, Danish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. In most languages, more than one translation of the book exists (for example, over 60 translations in English and 30 in German).

The English Orientalist William Jones first translated a few episodes from the Shahnama in 1774. Four years later, Joseph Champion published an anthology, The Poems of Ferdosi, in Calcutta. Stephen Weston's Episodes from the Shah Nameh: On Annals of the Persian Kings (1815), James Atkinson's The Shah Nameh of the Persian Poet Firdausi (1832), and Helen Zimmern's The Shah Namah: The Epic of Kings (1883) are among the nineteenth-century translations which have been recently reprinted. The English poet Matthew Arnold published a freely-translated narrative poem of the Sohrab and Rustum (the death of the young hero Sohrab unknowingly at the hand of his father Rustam) in 1853.

In France, L. M. Langles first translated an anthology of the Shahnama in 1778. The complete French translation was made by Mohl (1831-1868). In Germany, Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack first translated the entire Shahnama in 1851. Schelechta Wssehrd did the same in verse (Vienna, 1889). The complete Italian translation of the Shahnama was made by I. Pizzi in eight volumes (Turin, 1886-1888).

A complete English translation of the Shahnama in verse was done by the brothers Arthur George and Edward Warner (nine volumes, 1905-1025) and a complete translation in prose was published by Rahman Surti (1986-1988). Two abridged prose translations in English are widely used today: The Epic of the Kings translated by the late Cambridge professor Reuben Levy (1967), and Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Dick Davis (2006).

Ferdowsi's Contributions

Ferdowsi's Shahnama is among those books that have had great impacts on human culture. Among its contributions are as follows:

(1) The book has portrayed the mythological and historical stories of an ancient civilization and has thus preserved the historical memory of Persia as part of humankind's heritage.

(2) Ferdowsi's narrative highlights lofty qualities for human life and social conduct (to people and leaders alike): Wisdom and knowledge, courage and diligence, justice and fairness, and love of homeland, humanity, and life.

(3) Ferdowsi's work established the modern Persian as we use today--a thousand years after him. All Persian poets including Omar Khayyam, Saadi, Rumi, and Hafiz are indebted to Ferdowsi for their language. Some poets have even imitated his work; the earl iest and most famous being Asadi Tusi (from Ferdowsi's hometown) who composed in 1066 the "Garshaseb-nameh" (after the name of a hero in the Shahnama).

(4) The Shahnama uses largely Persian words and very few Arabic words (which were later incorporated in large numbers into the Persian vocabulary); in this way, by studying this book we also learn about an ancient vocabulary that shares common roots with

Greek and Sanskrit (the Indo-European family of languages).

(5) Finally, the Shahnama has motivated many artists in the areas of miniature paintings, Persian calligraphy, folk theatre, and story telling. In 2006, one folio of miniature painting from the 16th Shahnama manuscript (from the Houghton collection) was sold in London for 904,000 [pounds sterling] ($1.7 million)!

These are indeed remarkable achievements for a single book. UNESCO in its 181 executive board session (April 2009, Paris) approved to support cultural celebrations in 2010-2011 as the Millennium of Shahnameh. Events to mark this occasion include exhibitions of the antique manuscripts and miniature paintings from the Shahnama at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (April 24, 2010-January 16, 2011), Harvard University's Houghton Library (July 6-November 24, 2010), Harvard Library Museum, Boston (June 18-November 27, 2010), Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK (September 11, 2010 through January 9, 2011) and the Smithsonian Museum's Arthur Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C. (October 23, 2010 through April 17, 2011).

Magnificent buildings crumble under the action of the rains and burning sun. But the palace of poetry I have constructed Will remain intact from the harm of the wind and rain.

--Ferdowsi, in the Shahnama


Brend, Barbara and Charles Melville (eds.), Epic of the Persian Kings: The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, London, I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Browne, Edward, A Literary History of Persia, vol. 2. From Firdawsi to Sa'adi, Cambridge University Press, 1906 and 1964, pp. 129-147.

Davis, Dick, Epic and Sedition: A Case of Ferdowsi's Shahnama, Washington D.C.: Mage, 1999.

Davis, Dick (translator), Abolqasim Ferdowsi: Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings, New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Hillenbrand, Robert (ed.), Shahnama: The Visual Language of the Persian Book of Kings, Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004.

Khaleghi-Motlagh, Djalal, "Ferdowsi" in Encyclopedia Iranica, volume 9F.

Levy, Reuben (translator), Ferdowsi: The Epic of the Kings, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967; Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Press, 1996.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur, Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography, Harvard University Press, 1991.

Tadjadod, Nahal, "The Epic of the Kings," UNESCO Courier, September 1989, pp. 29-31.

Rasoul Sorkhabi is the director of the Rumi Poetry Club based in Salt Lake City ( and has contributed several articles to The World & I Online, including biographies of the Persian poets Rumi (April 2009) and Saadi (June 2009). Ferdowsi's poems quoted here are the author's translation from the Persian.
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Title Annotation:CULTURE
Author:Sorkhabi, Rasoul
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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